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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Dolittle, Review: Only a veterinarian can save the Queen

Dolittle, Review: Only a veterinarian can save the Queen

Imagine a veterinarian doctor who can understand animal language and talk to any member of the animal, bird and fish kingdom. When translated to cinema, as in Dolittle, this story creates a dramatic premise where his unique ability would prove crucial in an effort to save the dying Queen of England, no less. It’s as preposterous a premise as the basic platform itself, but, nevertheless, adds to the cuteness value of the whole exercise. Animals, birds and fish are given human communicative attributes; however, there is little else to qualify as a really worthwhile interface.

A reboot of the Dr. Dolittle films, first of which was released in 1967, the film is based on the character Doctor Dolittle, created by Hugh Lofting (British-American, 1886-1947), primarily based on, and more faithful to, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (Lofting’s second book, published in 1922; the first was The Story of Dr. Dolittle, 1920). A total of five films have been made so far, including two direct-to-video sequels.

On a hunting trip with his father, a young boy, Tommy Stubbins, is distraught at having shot a squirrel, named Kevin. The squirrel is still alive, and the boy tries to get some help and save its life. He carries the wounded animal in a box and lands up at Dolittle Manor, where he is caught in a trap-net, as he tries to enter the forbidden mansion. It has been seven years after his wife, Lily’s death, on an exploratory voyage, and the eccentric John Dolittle, famed doctor and veterinarian in Victorian England, has become a hermit, hiding himself away behind the high walls of Dolittle Manor, the place gifted to him by the Queen, where he used to treat members of the animal kingdom, with only his menagerie of animals for company. Suddenly, a young woman, Lady Rose, arrives, as a royal emissary of the Queen, and inquires about Dr. Dolittle. She frees the boy, and the two of them manage to get an audience with Dr. Dolittle himself.

Rose tells him that the Queen is dying and that she has asked him to come and help save her. Initially reluctant, Dolittle gives in when his retinue of animals and birds emotionally blackmails him. So, the polar bear, Yoshi, the gorilla Chee-Chee, a huge ostrich called Plimpton, a parrot (macaw), Poly, and some other animals head towards the Queen’s palace. There, Dolittle talks to a squid/octopus in a fish-tank, and is told that the royal physician, Dr. Blair Mudfly, has poisoned the Queen. He finds out an antidote, but to get it, he will have to make a long sea voyage to a mythical island and locate the fruit of the Eden tree.

He leaves the queen in the care of his bespectacled dog, Jip, and decides to find the antidote. Even as he is making his way to the island on a ship, with some animals and Tommy as an apprentice, another ship, the Britannia, follows him, captained by the physician, who wants to attack and kill Dr. Dolittle, to prevent him from bringing the antidote. He also has to overcome an old adversary, his father-in-law, Rassouli, the King of Pirates, and a ferocious tiger called Barry, and a fire-breathing dragon, Ginko-Who-Soars that guards the Eden tree.

Using Lofting’s characters to build a story, Thomas Shepherd (The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, Hey Stella, Agatha Christie, Matt Helm) keeps it simple, perhaps too simple. There is a good man in a bad situation, summoned by a good Queen in a bad situation, pursued by conspirators and villains, a tiger and a dragon, and emerging victorious, which is a given in all such fairy stories/animation tales. It was up to the screenplay by director Stephen Gaghan (Syriana, Gold), Dan Gregor (TV, Most Likely to Murder, Rescue Rangers, Magic Camp) and Doug Mand (team with Dan Gregor) to make the journey interesting, and they have had only limited success on this count.

After some initial conversations, the charm of non-human talk and its English substitute, including the animal lingo learning process of Tommy, soon wears off. Some non-human characters are interesting, like the vengeful squirrel, the polar bear who cannot bear cold, the duck with a metal leg, Dab-Dab, who serves as a bumbling operation theatre nurse, and the timid, cowardly gorilla. Palace intrigue follows usual clichés and tropes, with an ambitious Lord hatching a conspiracy to eliminate the Queen and usurp the throne for himself. Dolittle's encounter with the tiger is thrilling and the dragon is truly menacing. Yet, the trick that Dolittle uses on the dragon is too obvious to be witty or courageous. On the other hand, the technique used to propel the ship at a much faster speed, to escape from the Britannia, is interesting. Most elements do jell together in the climax, which, again, is all too predictable.

In the books, a children’s classic, Dr. Dolittle is a chubby, gentle, eccentric physician to animals, who learns the language of animals from his parrot, Polynesia, so that he can treat their complaints more efficiently. Much of the wit and charm of the stories lies in their matter-of-fact treatment of the doctor’s bachelor household in Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, where his housekeeper, Dab-Dab, is a duck, and his visitors and patients are animals. He is not chubby at all in the film, and the parrot’s name is abbreviated as Poly (could be Polly, phonetically). There is bit of back-story, as a flashback, in which his wife loses her life while on a dangerous expedition, and another bit of information about his medical student days is revealed by the royal physician, who went to the same college as Dr. Dolittle.

An all-star cast decorates the credit titles of Dolittle, and all have done a very good job. Unfortunately, they have strong accents, in an attempt to give them individual personae, and speak at breakneck speed. Add to this largely frenetic editing by Craig Alpert and Nick Moore, and the dialogue is incomprehensible in many scenes. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro captures both the picturesque beauty of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, as well as the fire-spewing, sinister, sombre, unequal combat between man and super-dragon with equal ease.

With only one dimension, Dolittle’s ability to talk to animals, as its main plank, a lot of writing skill was needed to breathe life into a new narrative on the same lines. Gaghan and company just about manage to keep it afloat, without distinction.

Cast, including voice actors

Robert Downey Jr. is the laid back and gifted Dr. Dolittle

Antonio Banderas plays Rassouli, Dolittle’s father-in-law and King of the Pirates

Michael Sheen as a menacing Dr. Blair Mudfly

Kasia Smutniak is cast as Lily

Carmel Laniado enacts Rose

Jim Braodbent performs the evil Lord Badgley

Emma Thompson as Polynesia

Rami Malek as Chee-Chee

John Cena as Yoshi

Kumail Nanjiani as Plimpton

Octavia Spencer as Dab-Dab

Tom Holland as Jip

Craig Robinson as Kevin

Ralph Fiennes as Barry

Selena Gomez as Betsy

Marion Cotillard as Tutu

Carmen Ejogo as Regine

Jason Mantzoukas as James

Frances de la Tour as Ginko-Who-Soars

Rating: ** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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